Can consumers create a sustainable food system?

28 May, 2021

Evidence suggests Covid-19 has enhanced our collective awareness of global issues. In addition, research shows that many consumers are actively changing what they buy based on sustainability as well as practicing sustainability-led behaviours such as reducing food waste and opting to buy products that have less packaging.

But the connection between consumer behaviour and climate change is complex, and many struggle to determine which changes have the best – or biggest – impact.

In this paper we explore whether consumers really can drive the creation of a truly sustainable food system.

The Coronavirus pandemic has changed our relationship with food. National lockdowns meant that, for many people, preparing a meal at home became a highlight of the day. Rather than being an afterthought at the end of the working day, cooking became an important part of our daily routines.

At the same time, evidence suggests Covid-19 enhanced our collective awareness of global issues. Research by Capgemini shows that a significant majority of consumers (79%) are actively changing what they buy based on sustainability. And they also claim to be practicing sustainability-led behaviours by reducing food waste, using energy-efficient appliances and opting to buy products that have less packaging. 68% of consumers say they want to increase their use of local products too.

Such trends for more mindful consumption signals good news for the world’s food system, which is struggling to cope with feeding a growing global population. The strongly interlinked demand for food, energy and water by increasingly wealthy economies makes it harder for farmers and food producers to maintain their efforts.

With food accounting for more than a quarter (26%) of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and half of the planet’s land being used for agriculture, it is vital that what is produced is done so in the most efficient and environmentally friendly way possible. It must also be eaten (and not wasted) and be nutritionally good for us too.

Food is at the very centre of attempts to address climate change, reduce water stress, restore lands back to forests, protect the world’s wildlife and deal with pollution.

A disconnect in understanding

The trouble is consumers struggle to make this connection. According to extensive academic research on the subject, “the relationship between consumer behaviour and climate change is complex, and most consumers are not capable of determining which behaviour changes are worth doing”.

This is why unsustainable food production and consumption continues unabashed. It is a shocking statistic that a third of all the world’s food produced for human consumption gets lost or wasted, either on its way to manufacturing or retail sites or in people’s homes. In the UK, more than two million tonnes of the food that gets put in the bin is still edible. That’s enough food to make 1.3 billion meals.

Our sustained appetite for meat products is not helping either. Meat and dairy specifically account for more than 14% of total GHGs. This is a problem when, today, the average person eats 43 kilograms of meat per year (excluding fish and seafood) – 20 kilograms more than was the norm in the 1960s. This increase in per capita meat consumption suggests total meat production has been growing at a much faster rate than population growth in the last 50 years.

Changing consumer behaviour, which is linked to cultural ideals and long-term habits, is tough, says Sagentia Innovation’s Chief Technology Officer, Alun James. “Take fruit and veg, for example. Thirty years ago, supermarket shelves only stocked seasonal goods. But today, because of consumer demand, our fruit and veg is flown in from all corners of the globe, which is driving unsustainable food miles.”

A great opportunity to initiate change

But that doesn’t mean change cannot come about. A joint research project by GlobeScan and BBMG in late 2020 shows that younger generations across the world are looking for brands to be more transformative when it comes to social and environmental issues. There is a real thirst for something more exciting and dynamic from the marketplace among younger people, according to GlobeScan.

That’s not to say consumers are willing to make many trade-offs in the name of sustainability. Separate GlobeScan data shows that as many as 40% of people worldwide would ditch meat products in favour of a plant-based meat substitute, for example – but only if it tasted the same and it cost the same. The majority of consumers across seven of 27 nations surveyed, including Argentina and Brazil, say they would prefer plant-based alternatives to real meat.

Health and wellbeing present a strong opportunity to initiate change. In fact, wellbeing is the number-one area of interest for consumers in all markets, regardless of age and demographic. If more people can mentally connect their own dietary benefits – and those of the natural environment – with adopting a plant-based diet, our rampant demand for meat might wane. A growing number of brands are already hedging their bets on this growing trend. For example, IKEA’s plant-based HUVUDROLL, is giving its popular Swedish meatball a run for its money. According to the company, it has only 4% of the climate footprint of its counterpart, “without compromising on taste”. And consumer goods giant Unilever has been steadily expanding its plant-based meat and dairy alternatives business for several years.

The desire to know more about the food and drink we consume will undoubtedly sustain corporate focus on enhanced traceability of ingredients and products, as trust becomes the most valuable currency for companies across the sectors.

Consumers alone cannot fix our broken food system. Still, behaviour changes can have a significant impact in fostering a more sustainable and alternative approach to production and consumption patterns. As new research suggests, “through the realistic implementation of already known changes in consumer behaviour,” EU nations could reduce their carbon footprint by about 25%.


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